Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Amor Mundi 11/1/15


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

amor_mundi_sign-upPermanent Purgatory

refugee campElizabeth Dunn uses the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe to consider the ever-present fact of refugee camps around the world. The average refugee lives in a camp for 12 years, while many spend the remainder of their lives in these places. As Dunn writes, "the purgatory of camp life lasts decades or even generations, as the politics of refugees' home countries remains unstable." For Dunn, the refugee "problem" cannot be thought of as a border problem but must be seen as a question of resettlement. Her view is buttressed by an uncompromising look at the reality of living in a camp. "The problem is compounded by the total failure of the refugee camp as a humanitarian and political technology. Since the 1950s, Western Europe has tried to keep displaced people outside its borders by funding large-scale refugee camps in Third World countries. Despite the United Nations High Commission for Refugees' call for 'durable solutions' for displaced people, the plan for most refugees is for them to wait in camps until they can return home, even when there is no foreseeable end to the wars or occupations that have displaced them. But while these camps offer politicians a convenient way to avoid making decisions about foreign wars and domestic immigration issues, the camps can only offer refugees a way of life that is permanently temporary. With no prospects for permanent relocation and the basic necessities for sustaining life in short supply, it is no surprise that displaced people are attempting the dangerous voyage to Europe. 'This isn't living; it's just existing,' Mzia Khizanishvili told me in the summer of 2014, as we sat outside her small cottage in a refugee camp in the Republic of Georgia. During the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, Khizanishvili, a middle-aged school principal, became a victim of ethnic cleansing along with 28,000 other people in the breakaway province of South Ossetia. More than six years later, most of them were still stuck in the camps, which the government euphemistically called 'new settlements.' With unemployment rates at more than 80 percent and little farmland available for the camp's residents, the internally displaced people in Georgia did what displaced people around the world do in refugee camps: they sat and waited to begin new lives."

Free Expression on Campus

nadine strossenNadine Strossen went to Harvard's Shorenstein Center to deliver the eighth annual Salant Lecture on Freedom of the Press. In her talk, Strossen discussed "how university sexual harassment policies increasingly go well beyond the Supreme Court's definition of sexual harassment, 'extending to speech with any sexual content that anyone finds offensive.' Strossen argued that this concept has become 'entrenched' on university campuses as the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has threatened to pull federal funding from schools that do not 'enact sexual misconduct policies that violate many civil liberties.' 'Combating gender discrimination, violence and sexual assault is of the utmost urgency,' said Strossen, 'but OCR's distorted concept of sexual harassment actually does more harm than good to gender justice, not to mention free speech.' 'OCR's flawed sexual harassment concept reflects sexist stereotypes that are equally insulting to women and men. For women, it embodies the archaic infantilizing notion that we are inherently demeaned by any expression with sexual content,' she continued. Strossen critiqued the current trend toward shielding students from ideas that may make them uncomfortable. 'Last fall, Brown University set up a safe space for students who felt endangered by the mere fact that a debate was taking place on campus on the topic of how should campuses handle sexual assault,' she said, noting that the space was equipped with calming music, videos of puppies, and playdough. 'This focus on safety from disturbing ideas is especially misplaced given the ongoing serious threats to students' physical safety, including rape and sexual assault,' said Strossen. 'Also in the wake of the latest mass gun murders on a campus, we have to contrast government pressure to shield students from ideas with its failure to shield them from guns...when it comes to safety our students are being doubly disserved, too often denied safety from physical violence, which is critical for their education, but too often granted safety from ideas, which is antithetical to their education.'" The question of "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus" is the topic for the ninth annual Hannah Arendt Center Conference on Oct. 20-21, 2016. Save the date.

Triggering the Teacher

trigger warningsRani Neutill was teaching a class on the representation of sex throughout American cinema and at the same time working as Director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention Services at her university. Her students demanded trigger warnings and even still came crying hysterical to her office. She complied, even as she worried that doing so was neither effective nor productive. That is, until she lost patience. She has left teaching because of her experiences. Colleges, she writes, "are the new helicopter parents, places where the quest for emotional safety and psychic healing leads not to learning, but regression." Here was the final straw that sent Neutill over the edge: "Nevertheless, I did it. Each night I sent a meticulous email detailing which scene I was showing, where in the film the scene was, and what the content of the scene included. My role as a sexual assault prevention services specialist and survivor advocate eclipsed my role as a professor as I tried to accommodate students over and over again. The next film to piss them all off was 9 1/2 Weeks. The film is about an S&M relationship between a character played by Micky Rourke and one played by Kim Basinger. At first Basinger's character is drawn to Rourke and they begin an S&M style consensual relationship. As the film goes on, Rourke becomes abusive and the sex becomes non-consensual, but the beauty of the film is that Basinger is eventually able to let go and take something from the relationship--a heightened sense of her sexuality and desires. There's an infamous scene with Rourke feeding Basinger a number of food items while she's blindfolded. It's basically a series of soft-core money shots. It is a consensual scene. When conversation began in class, a white male student started talking about the scene as one of consent. Four hands shot up. One said, 'no--it is clearly not consensual.' Other students concurred. They argued that if someone is in an abusive relationship, they can never consent to sex because they are being manipulated. This triggered me. I was furious. Sexual assault survivor support is about empowerment. The model says, 'Hey! It's not for you to tell the survivor what happened to them; that's their story, they know, don't f--king label it.' What these students were essentially doing was stripping every person in an abusive relationship of all their agency. They were telling every survivor that they were raped, even when the survivor may have wanted to have sex with their abuser. They were claiming god like knowledge of every sexual encounter. And they were only 20. If that. Their frontal lobes haven't even fully developed. I was done with it. I was drained. I was anxious. I was tired. I was fed up. But I didn't want to be. I had been teaching for ten years with passion."


academiaArthur C. Brooks argues in the NY Times that increasing homogeneity of thought on college and university campuses is endangering free and critical thinking. "But even honest researchers are affected by the unconscious bias that creeps in when everyone thinks the same way. Certain results--especially when they reinforce commonly held ideas--tend to receive a lower standard of scrutiny. This might help explain why, when the Open Science Collaboration's Reproducibility Project recently sought to retest 100 social science studies, the group was unable to confirm the original findings more than half the time. These concerns aren't a modern innovation. In one classic experiment from 1975, a group of scholars was asked to evaluate one of two research papers that used the same statistical methodology to reach opposite conclusions. One version 'found' that liberal political activists were mentally healthier than the general population; the other paper, otherwise identical, was set up to 'prove' the opposite conclusion. The liberal reviewers rated the first version significantly more publishable than its less flattering twin." For Brooks, we should welcome opposing and dissenting voices not simply because they may be right and we wrong, but rather because responding to dissent will force us to respond and recalibrate. It is, Brooks argues, a question of humility: "[I]mproving ideological diversity is not a fundamentally political undertaking. Rather, it is a question of humility. Proper scholarship is based on the simple virtues of tolerance, openness and modesty. Having people around who think differently thus improves not only science, but also character."

The Commons

obama robinsonIn Part II of the conversation between President Obama and writer Marilynne Robinson, President Obama speaks about the loss of common literature, common culture, and "common reference points."

"The President: Part of the challenge is--and I see this in our politics--is a common conversation. It's not so much, I think, that people don't read at all; it's that everybody is reading [in] their niche, and so often, at least in the media, they're reading stuff that reinforces their existing point of view. And so you don't have that phenomenon of here's a set of great books that everybody is familiar with and everybody is talking about. Sometimes you get some TV shows that fill that void, but increasingly now, that's splintered, too, so other than the Super Bowl, we don't have a lot of common reference points. And you can argue that that's part of the reason why our politics has gotten so polarized, is that--when I was growing up, if the president spoke to the country, there were three stations and every city had its own newspaper and they were going to cover that story. And that would last for a couple of weeks, people talking about what the president had talked about. Today, my poor press team, they're tweeting every two minutes because some new thing has happened, which then puts a premium on the sensational and the most outrageous or a conflict as a way of getting attention and breaking through the noise--which then creates, I believe, a pessimism about the country because all those quiet, sturdy voices that we were talking about at the beginning, they're not heard. It's not interesting to hear a story about some good people in some quiet place that did something sensible and figured out how to get along.

"Robinson: I think that in our earlier history--the Gettysburg Address or something--there was the conscious sense that democracy was an achievement. It was not simply the most efficient modern system or something. It was something that people collectively made and they understood that they held it together by valuing it. I think that in earlier periods--which is not to say one we will never return to--the president himself was this sort of symbolic achievement of democracy. And there was the human respect that I was talking about before, [that] compounds itself in the respect for the personified achievement of a democratic culture. Which is a hard thing--not many people can pull that together, you know.... So I do think that one of the things that we have to realize and talk about is that we cannot take it for granted. It's a made thing that we make continuously."

The common sense that we cannot take for granted and that we must continuously make is a central theme of Hannah Arendt's understanding of political action. Action is new, surprising, and shocking. It is the spontaneous surprise of action that gathers people around and initiates the conversations, dialogue, and discourses that gather a plural and diverse group of individuals into a political people. The worry Arendt voices is that in an era of spectacle and statistics, surprising action is rare and easily dismissed as an aberration. Action can be either criminal or heroic. To surprise and shock, action must become ever more extreme, which leads to it increasingly being seen as criminal, or at least irrelevant. The result is the splintering of attention and the loss of a common focus.

amor_mundi_sign-upLook at Me

Anselm KieferTrinie Dalton reviews Anselm Kiefer's Notebooks, Volume 1, 1998-99 in the LA Review of Books. "These Notebooks, which also often remark upon his burgeoning computer skills and how it takes up to '25 minutes to upload a file to the floppy disk,' are eerily all-too-contemporary when it comes to that existential angst that drives some social media fixations today--again the fine line between BE HERE NOW and LOOK AT ME. These journals are a reminder that our obsessions with staying occupied and proving we are real (i.e. selfies for some; jerking off for others) are not dictated by technology but rather are innate human traits expressible across behaviors and mediums. Kiefer's art and writing remind us that these compulsions have driven artistic practice since the dawn of time, not only in time-specific mediums (like narrative writing and music) but also in textual and visual mediums (like poetry and painting), which are arguably less tethered to time." One seemingly exemplary entry reads: "Sitting with my laptop, waiting. For what? What differentiates this waiting from waiting for a train or a flight? In both cases you wait until something arrives. In the case of waiting for something to write, the waiting is already a part of what is to be written down. Because something is already 'at work' while you wait, which could end the wait."

The Great Plastic Soup

Pinar YoldasIn an interview, Turkish artist Pinar Yoldas thinks aloud about environmentalism in the age of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: "We are living in a time when we really need to define what nature is. We have these images of nature that are also false. Eco-futurism is an attempt to better understand nature in order build a new culture that has more to offer. Eco-punk, I don't know. I'm always thinking of the future of the artist, or the future of the designer. Say you're a designer, and you design a chair or lemon squeezer or a lighting fixture, which we all need. Everybody loves nice lighting fixtures and chairs. But don't we have enough of these well-designed chairs? The definition of design has to change. We need subversive objects to create a discourse, not to solve a problem. We need critical design. I did a project similar to Ecology of Excess years earlier, called AlterEvolution. In LA I'd first read the phrase 'cage-free chickens,' which amazed me. Aren't chickens supposed to be cage-free? So I designed chickens without legs or wings. I took out the brain, so that only reproductive, circulatory, skeletal, and muscular systems remained. This was a critique of the food industry, of course. I called it biological minimalism at its best. Or take the issue of human engineering. There are already clinics in LA that let you pick your child's eye color. Why waste time with eye color? Go straight to the prefrontal cortex! I'm not just interested in protecting the environment. I want to know how we perceive ourselves as humans and what we are actually doing as pure consumers--with eugenics, for example, which has to do with human pride, this idea that we are the pinnacles of evolution. This kind of mentality is what I'm criticizing."

Dot Dot Dot

ellipsisKaty Waldman considers the ellipse: "The three dots extend from the end of the phrase like a ledge into the surrounding silence. They co-mingle the thrill of possibility with the fear of irresolution. Who can say what varmints lurk, what vistas shimmer, to the right of those humble stepping stones? Who can say if there's anything there at all? Dashes--useful and lovely though they are--are not ... ellipses. They excel at representing interruptions, trains of thought abruptly shorn off. Meanwhile, an ellipsis trails away gradually, delicately, all hesitance and apprehension. If a dash indicates the sudden arrival of a fiend in a Bram Stoker novel ('The curtains flutter strangely in the moonlight, I hear a noise--'), an ellipsis means the monster has come and gone, and things aren't looking good for the victim. ('It had ... fangs ... my neck ... ow.') According to The Chicago Manual of Style, 'ellipsis points suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion, insecurity, distress, or uncertainty.' While dashes jolt you forward, ellipses make you pause and linger... But not all ellipses are ghoulishly suggestive. Some--the kind a colleague calls 'ellipses of anticipation'--are exuberantly, epically suggestive! Star Wars begins with one such dot dot dot: 'A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ...' (A more prosaic example of the anticipatory ellipsis might be the three blue orbs that appear on your iPhone when someone's texting you back.) In a Peanuts strip, Snoopy types out a flurry of paperback clichés ('Suddenly a shot rang out. A door slammed. The maid screamed.'), and then frets that he 'may have written [himself] into a corner ...'. His final punctuation--not to mention the conditional 'MAY have written'--adds a charming understated wryness to the punch line. But what's especially great about Snoopy's ellipsis is how it resists the very closure he fears. As the dog's words trail off beyond the strip's last square, those dots become the thread leading him out of the corner. Where Joyce's ellipses suggest fracture or disjunction, the anticipatory ellipsis implies continuity, a world or life persisting independently of what appears on the page."

Better Bread

breadFerris Jabr profiles Stephen Jones, a scientist who thinks he can make bread interesting again: "What most people picture when they think of flour--that anonymous chalk-white powder from the supermarket--is anathema to Jones. Before the advent of industrial agriculture, Americans enjoyed a wide range of regional flours milled from equally diverse wheats, which in turn could be used to make breads that were astonish­ingly flavorful and nutritious. For nearly a century, however, America has grown wheat tailored to an industrial system designed to produce nutrient-poor flour and insipid, spongy breads soaked in preservatives. For the sake of profit and expediency, we forfeited pleasure and health. The Bread Lab's mission is to make regional grain farming viable once more, by creating entirely new kinds of wheat that unite the taste and wholesomeness of their ancestors with the robustness of their modern counterparts. Although regional grain economies have developed in California, North Carolina, Arizona and elsewhere, there are few people who match Jones's fervor for wheat and none with an equally grand vision for its future. His lab was founded just three years ago, but it has already earned the respect of the country's most celebrated bakers, like Chad Robertson of Tartine and Jeffrey Hamelman, the director of King Arthur Bakery. Dan Barber teamed up with Jones to develop 'Barber wheat' for his restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which is ensconced in a working farm. Bread Lab breads have even made their way to the kitchens of the White House. In recent months, the lab's newfound popularity has caused a bit of an identity crisis. Its latest collaborator is the fast-casual Mexican chain Chipotle, which wants to use one of the lab's regional wheats in its tortillas. Chipotle serves 800,000 tortillas around the country every day. 'There are definitely issues of scale,' Jones says. 'If you have Chipotle come in, how big does it get, and how quickly? Do we end up with a commodity by any other name?'"

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #14

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm



Critical Theory and Surreal Practice: A Conversation with Elisabeth Lenk and Rita BischofCritical Theory and Surreal Practice: A Conversation with Elizabeth Lenk and Rita Bischoff

In 1962, a politically active Elisabeth Lenk moved to Paris and persuaded Theodor W. Adorno to supervise her sociology dissertation on the surrealists. Adorno, though critical of Surrealism, agreed. The Challenge of Surrealism presents their correspondence, written between 1962 and Adorno's death in 1969, set against the backdrop of Adorno and Walter Benjamin's disagreement about the present possibilities of future political action, crystallization, and the dialectical image. The letters offer a fresh portrait of Adorno and expand upon his view of Surrealism and the student movements in 1960s France and Germany, while Lenk's essays and Bischof's introduction argue that there is a legitimate connection between Surrealism and political resistance that still holds true today. Please join us at the Hannah Arendt Center for a conversation with Elisabeth Lenk and Rita Bischof to celebrate the English translation of The Challenge of Surrealism: The Correspondence of Theodor W. Adorno and Elisabeth Lenk.

Free & Open to the Public. Kaffee and Kuchen will be served!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Hannah Arendt Center, 3:00 pm

How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusSAVE THE DATE - 2016 FALL CONFERENCE

On OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on Campus". We'll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Hans Teerds discusses how being at home in a desert-like landscape invokes the danger of losing any real contact with the world and its (other) inhabitants in the Quote of the Week. The Persian poet Rumi reflects on the heartache and sorrow involved in thinking in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We publicize the news that the Department of Philosophy at West Chester University will be hosting the tenth independent conference of the Hannah Arendt Circle, March 10-12, 2016 and that the Hannah Arendt Circle is now accepting papers for this event. Finally, we appreciate Arendt's three-volume copy of The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History in this week's Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

To Be at Home in the Desert

to be at home in the desert

By Hans Teerds

‘The danger lies in becoming true inhabitants of the desert and feeling at home in it.’

Hannah Arendt – ‘The History of Political Theory’ (1955)

This warning is actually taken from a conclusion of a lecture Arendt delivered in 1955 at the University of California (Berkeley), which has been added by Jerome Kohn as an ‘Epilogue’ to the collected writings of Arendt under the title The Promise of Politics. An epilogue it is, I think--to the collected thoughts on politics in this volume.

Hans Teerds
Hans Teerds is an architect based in Amsterdam. He currently is writing a Ph.D thesis on the public aspects of architecture as understood through the writings of Hannah Arendt at the Delft University of Technology.

The Nation Principle


Marburg, July 1952

Ad imperialism: Imperialism, i.e. the idea of empire carried by the nation, has perished because wherever the nation appears, it engenders nations according to its own principle. This is, concretely, how the “conquest” of the world by the West took place, except that it wasn’t a real conquest and that assimilation to the conquering people [Eroberervolk] was just as impossible as the introduction of its own law.

The real tragedy in this process lies in the fact that the West only set out on its triumphant course over the earth at the moment when expansion had become the only way out of the national problems that had become insoluble. The nation spread across the earth when it had been proven that nation-states do not have the potential of conducting world politics. Thus, Europe by definition not only exported the national idea but “nationalism” as a desperate flight from the collapse of the nation-state. In this process, or at its end, the “nation” separated itself from the “state,” hoping that the problem was with the concept of the state. With that began the tribal [völkische] stage of nationalism; one step further on this extraordinarily lopsided plain appeared race, in which the people [Volk] had also separated itself from the soil and had become a devastating [verwüstende] horde. Thus collapsed the holy national trinity of people [Volk]-state-territory. Today, after the collapse of the imperialist experiment and in light of the totally-totalitarian menace, we have states behind which the people [Volk] no longer stands; territories that will no longer be defended against foreign conquerors by their inhabitants; and peoples [Völker] that are neither organized and protected by the state nor “enrooted” in the soil. This is the space of the desert, in which the sand storms are unleashed.

(Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, pp. 216-7 (entry number 22), translation mine.)

Written three years after Arendt finished the original manuscript of The Origins of Totalitarianism, this very dense entry in Arendt’s Denktagebuch (“think diary”) revisits several of the main arguments developed in part 2, “Imperialism,” of that book. I will draw primarily on Origins to unpack it.

Michiel Bot
Michiel Bot is a Hannah Arendt Center Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Bard College, where he teaches in Political Studies. He received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from New York University in 2013.

Totalitarianism and the Sand Storm



“If this practice [of totalitarianism] is compared with […] [the desert] of tyranny, it seems as if a way had been found to set the desert itself in motion, to let loose a sand storm that could cover all parts of the inhabited earth.
The conditions under which we exist today in the field of politics are indeed threatened by these devastating sand storms.”
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

In the concluding chapter to The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argues that totalitarianism must be understood as a new “form of government” in its own right, rather than as a transitory or haphazard series of external catastrophes afflicting classical forms like democracy or monarchy.  Essentially different from the extralegal form of tyranny as well, totalitarianism’s emergence marks a terrifying new horizon for human political experience, one that will surely survive the passing of Hitler and Stalin.  Arendt’s point is that the totalitarian form is still with us because the all too protean origins of totalitarianism are still with us: loneliness as the normal register of social life, the frenzied lawfulness of ideological certitude, mass poverty and mass homelessness, the routine use of terror as a political instrument, and the ever growing speeds and scales of media, economics, and warfare.


The sand storm is Arendt’s metaphor for this volatile and shifting space that throws together the totalitarian form, the enduring civilizational crises that produced it, and the public realms that are precariously pitched against it.  The ambiguities and subtleties of Arendt’s striking metaphor are worth pausing over.  Her image of the sand storm can tell us a lot about the nature and environs of the totalitarian form - and the kinds of politics that might withstand it.

Arendt’s judgments about totalitarianism in the book’s conclusion are carefully measured and quietly demur from the Cold War bombast with which she is now so often associated.  Although Arendt argues that totalitarianism will most certainly recur after Hitler and Stalin, she insists that this new form is too self-destructive to last for very long in any given time and place. Totalitarianism’s suicidal rage for conquest and violence renders it unable to secure anything like a permanent world order.  (She notes in the second edition’s 1966 preface that it has undoubtedly thawed into tyranny in the Soviet Union.)  Critics and admirers of Arendt’s theory alike often overlook both the fast burn of totalitarianism’s death-drive and the wider geopolitical amorphousness that ignites it.  Totalitarianisms emerge for a time, then disappear suddenly, only to have some of their elements migrate, shape-shift, and re-emerge elsewhere, accomplishing fantastical destruction in the course of their coming-to-be and passing-away.  There is, then, paradoxically, a kind of fluidity, turbulence, and even formlessness that attends this new political form, which is partly what Arendt’s sand storm metaphor tries to convey.

What in the world could cause the desert of tyranny to be thrown into the air and perambulate the earth?  One might guess that the cause is something like absolute lawlessness.  And, indeed, the extraordinary criminality of totalitarianism makes it tempting to think of it as a mere modern tyranny, but Arendt’s desert-in-motion metaphor argues against this commonplace.  She likens tyranny to a desert because it is a political space that is evacuated of laws, institutions, and traditions.  What remains under tyranny, however, is the open space of plurality, where human beings can still confront one another within a cohering field of action and power.  Totalitarianism radically eliminates the space of plurality through the mobilizations of mass terror, collapsing the spaces between us that make us human.  Such mobilizations are not simply lawless.  Although contemptuous of positive law, totalitarianism is lawfully obedient to its own images of Nature and History.  More than this, the totalitarian form seeks to embody the laws of Nature and History.  Because it imagines that these laws can be directly enacted by politics, the totalitarian movement tries vainly to form their more-than-human movements.  Ideology helps to put the desert into motion too, but again not mainly through the lawlessness of unreason.  Rather, Arendt argues that totalitarian ideology is distinguished by its logical lawfulness.  Totalitarian logicality at once divorces thought from worldly common sense and attaches it to arbitrary and fleeting first principles.  The resulting conclusions are half-believed, inchoate certitudes that cling feverishly to a tight deductive form.  Thanks to this a priori sandblasting of common sense, the desert of tyranny is no longer a setting for the creative solace of solitude, exile, or contemplation.  It can only become the whirlwind of ideological reason in concert with the supra-human laws of everyday terror.

The most important force that throws the desert into motion is loneliness, which Arendt distinguishes from isolation.  Isolation, the old game of divide and conquer, belongs to the desert of tyranny.  Isolated women and men lack an organized public realm in which to create freedom with others. Yet they nonetheless retain a private realm that roots them in the world through home, family, work, and labor.  To be lonely is to be deprived of both the public and the private realms and therefore to feel utterly abandoned by other human beings, to finally lose one’s place in the world completely.  The mass production of loneliness is closely linked to the experiences of “uprootedness” and “superfluousness” that have unevenly afflicted peoples across the earth since the industrial revolution and European imperialism.  Pervasive loneliness as a modern way of life therefore amorphously anticipates the emergence of the totalitarian form, but it also serves to structure and vivify its psychic violence once underway.  Loneliness perversely tends to intensify when felt in the presence of others, that is, when one is not strictly speaking alone.  The genius of mass terror is that it is able to sustain precisely this kind of loneliness among many millions of people together simultaneously.  This is in part, Arendt argues, because totalitarian ideology seems to promise an escape from loneliness, that is, to offer form to what was before felt as superfluous and uprooted.  It is also because there is something in the psychology of loneliness that makes it singularly susceptible to the ideological calculus of despair and fatalism, to “deducing […] always the worst possible conclusions,” as Arendt puts it.


Arendt herself does not pursue the worst possible conclusions in the final chapter to The Origins of Totalitarianism.  She does, however, entertain the dark possibility that the “true predicaments” of our times have yet “to assume their authentic form,” a form that she does not expect to be totalitarian.  Given her sand storm metaphor, this remark might be understood as a double warning about the emergence of still newer political forms and the persistent dangers of political formlessness.  While it may be difficult to imagine worse forms than totalitarianism, Arendt’s story is also about the generative origins of totalitarianism.  She concludes her book by arguing that these origins are still very much in the wind.  The protean creativity of these airborne elements makes political life a much more precarious and circumscribed affair than it might otherwise appear, especially in the wake of Nazi defeat and Stalinism’s thaw.  That said, there exist other protean forces that are more congenial to the power of the public realm.  Against the sand storm, Arendt wagers on the formless forces of natality, the new beginnings that attend every human being for the sheer fact of having been born into the world as a distinct someone, different from all who have lived or will live.  The stubborn facts of natality do not yield reliably to loneliness or ideology or terror precisely because of their radical novelty, their inevitable disruptions of whatever preceded them, but also because of their inherent worldliness.  Natality’s stubborn facts will always push - sometimes weakly, sometimes irresistibly - toward plurality, action, power, and the public realm.  It is for this reason, if for no other, that totalitarianism’s origins will never be the only origins given to us.

-Bill Dixon

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Geography is not Destiny


How are we to explain the formation and collapse of the world’s great empires in the sweep of human history? And what might the fates of past civilizations suggest about the global political scene in the present and future? Such questions are the focus of Robert D. Kaplan’s recent book, The Revenge of Geography (2012), which Malise Ruthven treats in extensive detail in the February 21st issue of The New York Review of Books. Kaplan has worked for decades as a journalist, author, consultant, and lecturer, and one of his earlier books, Balkan Ghosts (1993), apparently dissuaded President Clinton from earlier intervention in the former Yugoslavia. Kaplan served as a member of the Defense Policy Board under Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from 2009 to 2011, and since then he has been chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas.

As the title of his book suggests, Kaplan regards geography, the physical features of the earth’s landmasses and waters, as the most basic and abiding determinant of human history. He takes issue with accounts that position culture and ideology as the motor forces of social and political affairs, and he questions the notion that globalization, with its boundary-traversing flows of people, goods, ideas, ideas, and images, is fundamentally recasting the contemporary world. Yet he would be among the first to admit that his analytical optic is not new, for he draws much inspiration from the work of the medieval Arab chronicler and social theorist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) as well as the British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947).

Ibn Khaldun argued that the earliest societies were formed by nomadic peoples in the rugged steppes, deserts, and mountains who constructed relations of authority through ties of kinship and “group feeling” (‘asabiya). Groups with pronounced ‘asabiya were the most capable of forming expansive dynasties and empires, and stable empires in turn offered the most promising conditions for productive agriculture, prosperous cities, and refined urban life. But every empire bore the seeds of its own demise, since the luxuries of rule were all too likely to result in corrupt and tyrannical rulers. New groups from the severe margins would eventually displace the old dynasts, according to Ibn Khaldun, and the cycle of imperial ascent and decline would begin once more.

Ibn Khaldun’s claims have been most thoroughly elaborated in the work of historian Marshall Hodgson, who is best known for his three-volume work Venture of Islam. But they also resonate with the vision of Halford Mackinder, who proposed the existence of a Central Asian “heartland” within a larger “World Island” of Eurasia and Africa. For Mackinder, this heartland of flatlands and steppes has consistently served as “the pivot on which the fate of great world empires rests.” In Mackinder’s analysis, the geography of Central Asia, with its arid expanses and harsh climates, bred tough nomadic peoples (think of the Huns and Mongols) who not only formed their own empires, but also prompted Russians and Europeans to establish powerful states in order to fend off their advances. In Mackinder’s estimation, controlling this heartland, and that portion of Eastern Europe that lay on its doorstep, provided the key to world domination.

Robert Kaplan draws heavily on Khaldun and Mackinder’s ideas to explicate the geopolitical challenges faced by a number of contemporary states. For example, he applies Ibn Khaldun’s scenario of settled states and nomadic invaders to present-day China, which is defined in his characterization by a dominant Han population in the country’s arable cradle and a host of restive Tibetans, Uighur Turks, and Inner Mongolians on its periphery. “The ultimate fate of the Chinese state,” he contends, will depend on whether the Han can keep these groups under control, “especially as China undergoes economic and social disruptions.” In similar fashion, Kaplan turns to Mackinder’s heartland thesis to make sense of Russia’s recent geopolitical aspirations, which in his view have turned on Putin and Medvedev’s efforts to create a land-based Central Asian empire with vast oil and natural gas reserves.

There are certainly some instances when Kaplan’s insistence on the salience of geography is well-taken. But there are far too many moments when his account is overly narrow if not myopic. China’s “economic and social disruptions”—the embrace of neoliberal restructuring, the rapid but uneven economic expansion, the simmering discontents of both avowed dissidents and ordinary citizens—are hardly secondary to the state’s fraught relations with its sizable ethnic minorities, which cannot in any case be entirely reduced to the realities of the physical environment. In addition, Kaplan is much too quick to impute sweeping cultural effects to geographic factors. For example, he proposes that Mongol incursions from the steppes helped to deny Russia the full impact of the Renaissance.

He also suggests that the country’s current lack of natural boundaries (aside from the Arctic and Pacific oceans) has promoted its thorough militarization and obsessive focus on security. In short, Kaplan paints a canvas of the world’s past and present in bold but overly broad strokes, strokes that in the end obscure a good deal more than they reveal.

Indeed, the thrust of Kaplan’s argument reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Samuel Huntington, another commentator who has sought to provide a skeleton key to the world’s current conflicts. To be sure, The Clash of Civilizations posits cultural divides, not geographical configurations, as the main force driving contemporary geopolitical tensions. But Huntington and Kaplan share the same penchant for more or less monocausal explanations, the same readiness to cast reified peoples, cultures, and states as the central protagonists of their geopolitical dramas. Moreover, both writers imply that the Cold War was a brief interlude that departed only momentarily from the more consistent and defining dynamics of world history. To an important extent, both writers suggest that our global present is not merely shaped by the past, but fundamentally in its thrall.

Thus, The Revenge of Geography and other works of its ilk are troubling not merely because they carry considerable weight in key sectors of U.S. policymaking circles and the broader reading public. More broadly, they leave us ill prepared to confront the specificity and singularity of the current global conjuncture. Much as Hannah Arendt insisted on the newness of totalitarianism even as she placed it within the long arc of anti-Semitism, imperialism, and modern oppression, we too should scrutinize the present with an eye for its irreducible distinctiveness. Little is to be gained, and much potentially lost, from the impulse to read the current moment as the product of general determining forces. Whether such forces go by the name of “geography” or “culture,” they encourage an interpretation of history by commonplaces, including the commonplace that history is ultimately—and merely—a narrative of rise and fall.

-Jeffrey Jurgens


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

What is a Fact?


What is a fact? Few more thorny questions exist. Consider this, from Hannah Arendt’s essay, “Truth and Politics:”

But do facts, independent of opinion and interpretation, exist at all? Have not generations of historians and philosophers of history demonstrated the impossibility of ascertaining facts without interpretation, since they must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence?

Facts are constructed. They are not objective. And there is no clear test for what is a fact. Thus, when Albert Einstein was asked, how science can separate fact from fiction, brilliant hypotheses from nutty quackery, he answered:  ‘There is no objective test.” Unlike rational truths that are true outside of experience and absolute, all factual truths are contingent. They might have been otherwise. That is one reason it is so hard to pin them down.

Steve Shapin reminds us of these puzzles in an excellent essay in this weeks London Review of Books. Shapin is reviewing a new book on Immanuel Velikovsky by Michael Gordin. Velikovsky, for those born since the 1960s, caused an uproar in the 1960s and 70s with his scientific claims that Venus was the result of a dislodged piece of Jupiter, that comets led to the parting of the Red Sea, that it dislodged the orbit of Mars threatening Earth, and caused the relocation of the North Pole, not to mention the showering of plagues of vermin onto the earth that nourished the Israelites in the desert.

Gordin’s book is about how American scientists went ballistic over Velikovsky. They sought to censor his work and schemed to prevent the publication of his book, Worlds in Collision, at the prestigious Macmillan press. At the center of the controversy was Harvard, where establishment scientists worked assiduously to discredit Velikovsky and stop the circulation of his ideas. [I am sensitive to such issues because I was also the target of such a suppression campaign. When my book The Gift of Science was about to be published by Harvard University Press, I received a call from the editor. It turns out an established scholar had demanded that HUP not publish my book, threatening to no longer review books for the press let alone publish with them. Thankfully, HUP resisted that pressure, for which I will always be grateful.]

For these Harvard scientists, Velikovsky was a charlatan peddling a dangerous pseudo science. The danger in Velikovsky’s claims was more than simple misinformation. It led, above all, to an attack on the very essence of scientific authority. What Velikovsky claimed as science flew in the face of what the scientific community knew to be true. He set himself up as an outsider, a dissident. Which he was. In the wake of totalitarianism, he argued that democratic society must allow for alternative and heretical views. The establishment, Velikovsky insisted, had no monopoly on truth. Let all views out, and let the best one win.

Shapin beautifully sums up the real seduction and danger lurking in Velikovsky’s work.

The Velikovsky affair made clear that there were radically differing conceptions of the political and intellectual constitution of a legitimate scientific community, of what it was to make and evaluate scientific knowledge. One appealing notion was that science is and ought to be a democracy, willing to consider all factual and theoretical claims, regardless of who makes them and of how they stand with respect to canons of existing belief. Challenges to orthodoxy ought to be welcomed: after all, hadn’t science been born historically through such challenges and hadn’t it progressed by means of the continual creative destruction of dogma? This, of course, was Velikovsky’s view, and it was not an easy matter for scientists in the liberal West to deny the legitimacy of that picture of scientific life. (Wasn’t this the lesson that ought to be learned from the experience of science in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia?) Yet living according to such ideals was impossible – nothing could be accomplished if every apparently crazy idea were to be given careful consideration – and in 1962 Thomas Kuhn’s immensely influential Structure of Scientific Revolutions commended a general picture of science in which ‘dogma’ (daringly given that name) had an essential role in science and in which ‘normal science’ rightly proceeded not through its permeability to all sorts of ideas but through a socially enforced ‘narrowing of perception’. Scientists judged new ideas to be beyond the pale not because they didn’t conform to abstract ideas about scientific values or formal notions of scientific method, but because such claims, given what scientists securely knew about the world, were implausible. Planets just didn’t behave the way Velikovsky said they did; his celestial mechanics required electromagnetic forces which just didn’t exist; the tails of comets were just not the sorts of body that could dump oil and manna on Middle Eastern deserts. A Harvard astronomer blandly noted that ‘if Dr Velikovsky is right, the rest of us are crazy.'

Immanuel Velikovsky

It is hard not to read this account and not think about contemporary debates over global warming, Darwinism, and the fall of the World Trade Center. In all three cases, outsiders and even some dissident scientists have made arguments that have been loudly disavowed by mainstream scientists.

No one has done more to explore the claims of modern pseudo science than Naomi Oreskes. In her book Merchants of Doubt written with Erik Conway, Oreskes shows how “a small handful of men” could, for purely ideological reasons, sow doubt about the ‘facts’ regarding global warming and the health effects of cigarettes. In a similar vein, Jonathan Kay has chronicled the efforts of pseudo scientists to argue that there was no possible way that the World Trade Towers could have been brought down by jet fuel fires, thus suggesting and seeking to “prove” that the U.S. government was behind the destruction of 9/11.

Oreskes wants to show, at once, that it is too easy for politically motivated scientists to sow doubt about scientific fact, and also that there is a workable and effective way for the scientific community to patrol the border between science and pseudo science. What governs that boundary is, in Oreskes words, “the scientific consensus.” The argument that global warming is a fact rests on claims about the scientific method: value free studies, evaluated by a system of peer review, moving towards consensus. Peer review is, for Oreskes, “is a crucial part of science.” And yet, for those who engage in it know full well, peer review is also deeply political, subject to petty and also not so petty disputes, jealousies, and vendettas. For this and other reasons, consensus is, as Oreskes herself admits, not always accurate: “The scientific consensus might, of course, be wrong. If the history of science teaches anything, it is humility, and no one can be faulted for failing to act on what is not known.”

Just as Einstein said 50 years ago, in the matters of establishing scientific fact, there is no objective test. This is frustrating. Indeed, it can be dangerous, not only when pseudo scientists sow doubt about global warming thus preventing meaningful and necessary action. But also, the pervasive and persuasive claims of pseudo science sow cynicism that undermines the factual and truthful foundations of human life.

Arendt reminds us, with a clarity rarely equaled, that factual truth is always contingent. “Facts are beyond agreement and consent, and all talk about them—all exchanges of opinion based on correct information—will contribute nothing to their establishment.” Against the pseudo scientific claims of many, science is always a contingent and hypothetical endeavor, one that deals in hypotheses, agreement, and factual proof. Scientific truth is always empirical truth and the truths of science are, in the end, grounded in consensus.

The trouble here is that scientific truths must—as scientific—claim to be true and not simply an opinion. Science makes a claim to authority that is predicated not upon proof but on the value and meaningfulness of impartial inquiry. It is a value that is increasingly in question.

What the challenge of pseudo science shows is how tenuous scientific authority and the value placed on disinterested research really is. Such inquiry has not always been valued and there is no reason to expect it to be valued about partial inquiry in the future. Arendt suggests that the origin of the value in disinterested inquiry was Homer’s decision to praise the Trojans equally as he lauded the Achaeans. Never before, she writes, had one people been able to look “with equal eyes upon friend and foe.” It was this revolutionary Greek objectivity that became the source for modern science. For those who do value science and understand the incredible advantages it has bestowed upon modern civilization, it is important to recall that the Homeric disinterestedness is neither natural nor necessary. In the effort to fight pseudo science, we must be willing and able to defend just such a position and thus what Nietzsche calls the “pathos of distance” must be central to any defense of the modern scientific world.

When science loses its authority, pseudo science thrives. That is the situation we are increasingly in today. There are no objective tests and no clear lines demarcating good and bad science. And that leaves us with the challenge of the modern age: to pursue truth and establish facts without secure or stable foundations. For that, we need reliable guides whom we can trust. And for that reason, you should read Steven Shapin’s latest essay. It is your weekend read.


Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".

Playafied: From Ritual to Ceremony


Nikita Nelin concludes his report of the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, 8/15/12-9/5/12. You can read his first post here, and his second post here.

Decompression: Before my hands heal I should sit down and find a way to wrap this up. I have been out of the desert (Black Rock City) for over a week now. I am back in the state of ‘normalcy,’ and yet I cannot help to feel that this ‘normal’ world is the exception. Have I been bedazzled, indoctrinated by some paganistic ritual? Did the “party” get me?

“Playa hands,” or feet, is the term used to describe what happens to ones hands, and feet, when they are overexposed to the conditions of the desert. They begin cracking -- “playafied” -- like the desert floor itself. Moisturizer helps, but the secret is to spray them down with vinegar every morning -- something about alkaline, acidity, etc...

I was out there for almost three weeks. Blood had begun to escape through some of the cracks. Yet, amid the sensory overload that is Burning Man -- coupled with the knowledge that whatever happens in the desert is hyper-transient -- your bodily concerns become secondary to the need to engage the world created for you. You celebrate despite the discomfort, or maybe even in part driven on by it. You don’t want to miss anything.

My hands have almost healed, new skin appearing underneath. I miss the damage. I miss what Burning Man proved.

I was moved towards Burning Man by the stories of others. What most attracted me to these stories were the themes of ritual, ceremony, and story telling. What I experienced, as a byproduct of being there, is the stuff I do not want to leave behind -- the concepts of ‘intent of environment’ (architecture and guiding principles), and ‘currency of gratitude.’ To feel complete, my new skin must now make space for these.

For this past week I have been needling my brain to pin down the difference between ritual and ceremony. I find it easy to mix them up. Why is there such confusion? Ultimately, I have come to see ritual as a loosely prescribed set of practices, or intentions, while ceremony is the celebration, or interpretation, of the prescribed by the practitioner. Certainly some anthropologists and theologists will find fault with my definitions. Well, I challenge you to bring me another set and if it reveals itself to be an exercise beyond semantics, I will be happy to sacrifice my hard won approximations. But that’s the catch, isn’t it? Definitions are the products of their society. They move, evolve... disappear. They are ‘approximate,’ in accordance to the pressure exercised upon them by what I call The Social Body -- our communal practices, beliefs and values, toys (inventions), cultural narratives, and the principles we deduce from the tangible matter of our environment.

Maybe what’s most worth exploring in the road towards a definition of ritual and ceremony is the location of the struggle itself: Why do we so struggle in defining them? What does this say about our society, and its practices? In the simplistic thinking somewhat necessary to engage such questions I had hoped to use my time at Burning Man as an aperture into the society at large. I brought my child brain, the one asks to see before judgement -- the one open to signs of proof.

What burning Man provides is a scaffolding of a society, a set of pillars (in its principles and architecture) to be built upon, and filled in by the participants. It is in this movement, from the scaffolding -- from the available structures -- towards the experience, that ‘ritual’ is made into ‘ceremony.’ It is where meaning is formed, and body is found. The concept of the ‘social body’ implies more then mere existence, or survival, more than just the fractals of society; it is a narrative, it is consciousness (a self-aware organism, capable of self correction), it is the accumulation of meaning.

The set of principles for this experimental society (Burning Man) are “Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, Immediacy.” To survive, and thrive in the desert, and to feel a part of the experience, one must find their own relationship to these principles, otherwise the experience will be tedious and lonely.

The other part of the scaffolding is the architectural intent. There is the city (its streets), its coordinates measured in the units of time, and thus when you arrive at a place you arrive to a time -- time is appropriated into a location (brings us closer to the definition of ‘being here’ doesn’t it?); there is the Playa floor, a space for various art installations; the camp space, the themes to be supplied by each individual camp, each camp identifying its own purpose; the Man, to be empowered with whatever meaning one finds necessary to bring to it; and the Temple, a spiritual space to be used for remembering loved ones, the execution of weddings, and a creative space for communion. There is also Center Camp, where you will find lectures, performances, coffee (it is in fact the only place where you can “buy” something). A friend of mine described Center Camp as “the heart of Burning Man.” Maybe because this is where the exchange of stories, connectivity, takes place.

The scaffolding of ritual is provided (a labor intensive process on the levels of planning, recruiting, development, and construction). In my conversation with Larry Harvey, one of the founders of Burning Man, he summed up the intention behind this social scaffolding like this, “I am, we are, it is.” He was not pointing to himself, or to the structure of the Man, rather, the gesture was towards the “participant.” No further elaboration is given. Meaning is not handed out here, nor is it imposed. What is implied by this is that the highest level of “participation,” is to give meaning. This is “radical inclusivity.” No ones experience is void. You can come here for a great party, or to say goodbye to a passed parent. You can have your own vision quest after sunrise, way out in deep playa, or you can don the outfit of a renegade and strap yourself up in the Thunder-Dome, just to see how you feel in the costume of primal power. All experiences are affirmed, accepted. The forms are created for you, and you fill in the space. Two experiences may further elaborate on this.

One night I was warned to wear white. “The white procession,” is what I was told. After being out all night, meeting people, seeing art pieces on the playa and dancing, we made our way to the temple for sunrise. After a night of being engulfed in noise and neon lights, we arrived at the wooden, ornate temple. The quiet, a gesture of respect to the space, was hyper-pronounced all around us. People praying, crying, meditating, talking in the open space. There were pictures and poems and notes stapled to every reachable surface of the structure. As the sun began to rise a small ensemble of musicians began to play soft wooden instruments. More and more people showed up, wearing white. Some in intricate feather outfits, some on stilts, some in a simple white shirt and seersucker pants (well, me!) -- the playa was flooded in white. I have been to spiritual spaces from Eastern Europe, to Europe, to the U.S., but the power of that space, its sincerity, was unlike anything I have ever experienced (I have no elegant words for this -- it was really something “I have never experienced”).

I can tell you more of that morning, the conversations, the white anonymous mask I had carried with me, the umbrella we found, the way this umbrella became empowered through a dance, through the power of movement and intention, when an art-car showed up with a music group called the Human Experience, how that empowerment became an opportunity for someone to say goodbye to her mother who had passed two years ago. How the anonymous mask, as more people in white arrived, as people celebrated the space and the new day, was endowed with personality of the dancers behind it. But I will simply say that ‘we filled the space,’ and allow you to unpack this meaning. Did my scientifically educated mind attempt to balk at this scene? I am trained to bring skepticism, but skepticism is only useful in service to a greater goal -- to seek out what is true in the arena of living. Otherwise it becomes a defense against its initial intention. To be disarmed, to be taken-in by a communal experience, to sense the meaning of the practice, is to be a living part of the ‘social body.’

Another morning we had wondered out to deep playa, where the installations are few and far in between. There we stumbled upon a smaller temple (about 20 feet high) made of diamond shaped wooden pods -- a hive. Inside sat a man with a hot stove and four people joining him in a circle. On a low table before him were five glass ramekins filled with tea. As we approached he took two more out of his bag and added them to the already existing ones, making the pattern of a diamond on the table, now reflecting the shape of the pods. We accepted the invitation. On a cold desert morning a hot cup of tea is the power of the sunrise. Soon my partner took out a ceremonial orchid fragrance and offered it up to the others. We sat there in the quiet, warmed up and without hurry, without any knowledge of the time. Tea, orchid fragrances, tarot cards, all become an invitation to converse -- to join, to exchange, to fill-in the space. We sat for two hours and the tea master told us of his camp and how it was their mission to keep tea in this space, and his fiance and work with a non-profit music space on the West coast. There were individual pods about forty yards off to one side of the structure, the side that faced the central playa and the camp spaces. Later I found similar pods scattered throughout the playa, including inside the base of The Man. Call it metaphysics, call it the construction of myth, but after the tea experience, every time I saw one of the pods, I could not help but to feel the transmission of that experience. The space of ritual became empowered through the formation of our ceremony, and the experience felt transmitted through association from portal to portal. Is that not the fabric of culture and meaning? Is that not how we once created a society worth participating in? Practices, intention, invitation, and room for interpretation, is that not the scaffolding of purpose and faith?

If I had to mold that space into a single definition I would call it an ‘intentional space holder.’ The camp, committed to keep a tea going in that structure, held space for participants -- for the arrival of stories (the people that bring them, and the articles that facilitate them). And this is another crucial memento that I carry from Burning Man. How often do we sit down and create a story between us? How versed are we today in exchanging myth? We exchange information at a rapid pace, having now been conditioned to advertise ourselves at every opportunity. We lobby the enterprise of self, and self today is an entity that is simply trying to survive -- survive in a plethora of other voices. We seek “hits,” and, “tweets,” attention to a carefully crafted mask. With painful detail we foster an identify that can “sell” and we update its status in a witty, seemingly effortless, “I have nothing to hide” fashion, so that we become “liked,” so that our circle of “network connections” can explode. We, each, becoming conditioned to present a face on a book, but without dimensions to it. How are we known? Do we now even know what to be known is? How many, or how few, of our actions are intentioned with the creation of meaning? How much in our repertoire of communication comes from a departure from the the practice of being seen, a false conditioning to define ourselves through the limiting shapes of business, career, education, ‘appropriate‘ culture defined beliefs -- assimilation? Assimilation, but to what? Have we each become a corporation of isolated creatures -- human inc.? And have we fallen into the practice of survival (holding ground) rather then the practice of exploration (creating space)? These are lofty questions, I know. And yet, is not our struggle in defining “story telling” and “connectivity” similar to the struggle in defining “ritual” and “community?” Could this struggle of definitions point towards us having taken for granted the initial pillars of community forming? Having moved away from something essential, could we have paralyzed the ‘social body?’

I have no clear answers to these questions. Only the sense that some of what I experienced at Burning Man helps to redirect my personal exploration of these subjects back to an older mode, to a practice that I had already sensed absent, yet one which when I am faced with, I recognize as essential. In part, this rerouting is somehow centered in the principles behind the event.

For those looking for more tangible examples to the power of “participant,” consider this: Burning Man, for a week the third largest city in Nevada, has almost no crime rate. It is a city that literally leaves nothing behind in trash, or MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) as it is called here. Everyone brings their own trash bags and collects MOOP while on the playa. In fact, when a group of Nevada policy makers came to examine Burning Man their collective surprise was centered on the absence of both public trash receptacles, and trash. Participants take pride in their society -- there is ownership of the ‘social body.’

Finally, I move to “intent of environment” and “currency of gratitude.” Once I left Black Rock CIty, and drove back into “our” society, I experienced a sense of vertigo. At each new scene I encountered my mind worked to solve the riddle of intention. At a starbucks, I wanted to ask the barista, what is the theme of your camp? What experience are you charged to awake in me? When I order one of your “luxurious hot chocolate beverages for the sophisticated palate” what am I inviting? What are the articles of facilitation within this camp? At a strip-mall outside of Reno I asked, what is the purpose of this installation? What does this space inspire? What psychic and creative pressure does it exercise on me? I had become sensitive to these questions.

We float from one “must do” to another, from one operational space to the next. Our practice has become ‘to-accomplish,’ ‘to-get-done,’ a checklist of survival before we come back to the safety of homes and return to sleep. We know a thing by what it does, by what it does for us, but not what it does to us or what it ‘impresses’ upon us. We have become too busy in the ritual of ‘getting-by’ to examine this question. No wonder the irony of Frank Gehry having been tapped to design the new Facebook campus speaks so loudly to us (even if we’re not sure of the words): An abstractionist tapped to give tangible form to the institution that most clearly provides us with the venue through which we can best abstract the condition of being. The questions our our being are finally visible in the structures which surround us -- that’s the irony we now interact with. Arthur Koestler, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and others, had predicted and observed this movement -- the emergence of space that comments on the loss of self. And now we live within this triangle -- self, our physical structures, our virtual structures -- uncertain which is the commentary, which is the creator, and which is in service of which.

Lastly I want to comment on the major form of currency at Burning Man. As mentioned earlier the exchange of money is extremely rare. Yet, there is exchange. Millions of dollars are spent yearly by individuals and groups, just to create an experience. I talked to a computer engineer who had been coming to Burning Man for five years. “It changed my life,” he said. “How?” “It made me want to give more, without asking for anything in return.” Such a cliche, right? You give without asking for anything in return, and you receive the gift of gratitude. Such a cliche, right..? And yet, this is the most obvious currency at Black Rock City. Each person is provided with an opportunity to form an experience for another. From the grand structures that hold space for everyone, to the theme camps that invite you to join them and pour gifts upon you -- from drinks to ice cream, to food, to conversation, to workshops, to tarot readings, to music, to showers and espresso, costumes, to confessionals, to the Thunder-Dome, to tea ceremonies, to trinkets and bracelets and other handcrafted articles of remembrance, to the extent of the human imagination. Such a cliche? Right? No competition, no “one-upmanship.” ‘You are invited,’ they say. You, are enough.

It is in the examination of such cliches that maybe we can begin a return to that place where we lost meaning. When did we decide that we are too busy, too smart, to be truly humanist? What made us this? The humanist tradition asks us to examine our being on every level -- the concentric circles of community (world, culture, self -- it, we, I). To use the full spectrum of our gifts in examining the state of being. To not hold “contempt prior to investigation” because such a state can lead one to loose the trail, and a skill once in service (skepticism) becomes a master -- a true state of purposelessness. Maybe it’s time to stop and reexamine our society, to allow for our deepest and most personal, and maybe most essential questions and concerns on the state of being, to catch up to the gifts of our inventions.

The creating of space: I cannot get away from this idea. This is what Burning Man does. It creates a space (a space for meeting, for discovery, serendipity, a space for creating) and I, pressurized (or inspired) by this space -- its subtle intentions, architecture and principles -- am left to empower this space with meaning, to fill in the forms. I am endowed with the magic of meaning making. From ritual to ceremony I make matter -- I make this time (this space) matter.

Left to my own devices I perform the rituals of living, but without the movements of meaning. I struggle to empower the mask.

We have passed to the end of the existential age. Someone declared God to be dead. Science, with all its promise and discovery, has too failed in filling in the shapes of existence. Consumerism, the god of the 20th century, has also, ultimately, failed to provide us with the kind of purpose that leads to a greater belonging, or safety. The internet age, having initially promised to connect us, is now making us even more isolated. The onus is placed on us. On the individual. In this age of the spectator (internet, TV, emotional removal from the immediacy of our world) we are left to create a ceremony of our existence, to question our rituals, to define the space of our community, and our coordinates within it -- to become  participants. To bring the social body back to a state of being.

-Nikita Nelin

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.